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Architect of Kittitas fire protection plan brings intriguing background to 'Firewise' initiative

Fires raging in Chelan and Klickitat counties have dimmed the memory of last August's disastrous Taylor Bridge Fire that scorched nearly 24,000 acres and consumed 63 homes and buildings in Kittitas County.


But the huge Colockum Tarps fire southwest of Wenatchee and the Mile Marker 28 fire near Satus Pass have given added emphasis to the importance of the fire-protection efforts that have gone on this summer, particularly in Kittitas County in the wake of Taylor Bridge. And those efforts helped make Washington perhaps the nation's most active state for involvement of communities in the nation's "Firewise" program.


The major fires this week in Chelan and Klickitat counties that have burned acreage exceeding the Taylor Bridge Fire represent an exclamation mark for the fact that the danger of fires in the region is bound to continue. And they help provide emphasis for the fact that preparation in the form of fire-protection steps represents the best hope of rural residents to minimize the impact of the blazes.


Suzanne Wade
Suzanne Wade

Suzanne Wade, the local official in Kittitas County responsible for creation, implementation and oversight of the County Fire Protection Plan, finds herself in a role with far different challenges than when she commanded a U.S. Army helicopter company in Europe and, among other duties, trained pilots to do what she wasn't permitted to do -- fly into combat zones.


Women were a tiny percent of Army personnel in the late '80s and early '90s so, as a commanding officer, she was in a then-unusual role for a woman, although she had two women among the 40 pilots under her command.


Near the end of her nine years in the army, she was sent to Alabama where she spent three years as a public affairs officer, flying "high-level people, including congressmen and generals," to appointments in her area, and training them "on how to talk to the press."


"No matter who was in the helicopter, even a general, as the pilot I outranked them," she said.


It takes a far different approach to accomplish her goals as the Kittitas County Conservation District's officer responsible for overseeing implementation of the Fire Protection Plan that she basically created five years ago.


"In my army life I was a company commander responsible not only for the flight students, but all the pilots that were under my 

command," Wade explained. "In this job I pretty much work autonomously and deal almost exclusively with individual landowners in a completely non regulatory manner-just those who want my help."


"We started putting the fire protection plan in place when DNR (the state Department of Natural Resources) asked us to write a countywide fire protection plan, which we had to have if Kittitas County was to be eligible for many of the grants that were becoming available," she recalls.


Meetings with the fire chiefs of various volunteer districts, state officials and the then-acting State Fire Marshall followed before completion of the plan, which she organized, wrote, created the maps for various areas and began meeting with rural residents interested in taking steps to protect their property.


She also created the district's website, explaining: "We didn't have one so I learned how to make one. I'm pretty proud of it so check it out (kccd.net)," she told me.


Sarah Foster, the DNR official who manages the Firewise programs across the state and works closely with Wade and her counterparts around the state, says the program in this state now encompasses 110 communities, mostly in the heavily forested four counties that border the Cascades.


Foster, who also manages DNR's urban and community forester programs, notes that the number of communities in this state involved in the Firewise program represents more than 10 percent of the total of 960 communities nationally, with Washington second only to Arkansas in the number of "Firewise" communities.


For comparison, Oregon has 40 "Firewise" communities, and California just under 70, she adds.


The Firewise program was created in 2001, a year before Wade joined the Kittitas conservation district, when the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior joined with the National Association of Foresters to put together the strategy for teaching residents about wildfire and how smart practices around their homes could reduce the risk of fire loss of residences. They coined the term "Firewise" and federal funds were made available for the program.


The official who helped make this state the leader of the program in the West is Matt Eberlein, now with DNR, who was a field forester in 2001when the program was launched nationally.


"We got on board and ran with it," he recalls. The focus was the counties on the eastern slope of the Cascades, where what he describes as "a lot of interest" was evidenced by property owners, but also "some resistance."


"I met with people one on one across the region and often dealt with resistance," said Eberlein, "with the big one being 'I like this property in its natural state,' to which I'd reply 'you own this beautiful piece of land, are you sure you don't want to do what you can to keep it from being burned in a fire.'"


The program involves removal of brush and undergrowth and thinning of smaller trees on portions of the property nearest to the homes of those participating in each of the projects.


"We've basically run out of funding this year because of all the extra interest since the fire last year, but I've still got some grants in and hoping we'll get some," said Wade, adding that the program spent $500,000 last year compared with $20,000 three years ago as it was getting under way. "But I'm spending whatever moneyanyone gives me," she said.


Fire ecologists have warned for years that the danger of wildfire is too high, due to decades of fire suppression, years of ill-conceived timber harvesting and a dramatic increase in the number of people living in forested areas.


The DNR's Foster says "a much larger investment is being made now, mostly federal funds often matched with state money," calling the relationship between DNR and the more than a dozen conservation districts in the state "a really positive partnership."



"We're seeing a lot more people getting interested and involved," she said, adding "we've been saying for years that it's not if a fire burns through an area, but when. Now residents of rural areas are listening."

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